The Hernando de Soto Expedition: History, Historiography, and "Discovery" in the Southeast

By Patricia Galloway | Go to book overview

Patricia Galloway


Commemorative History and Hernando de Soto

The Postmodern Problematic of Commemorative History

This essay closes a book dedicated to the historiography of an exploratory expedition that took place some four hundred and fifty years ago. The book, at least in part, documents the proceedings of the Mississippi Historical Society meeting of 1991. This meeting was dedicated to new scholarship about the expedition of Hernando de Soto for one reason: as historian Mike Scardaville said a few years ago, "Major historical events spark popular interest, popular interest generates funding, and funding encourages research on themes that center on major events."1 Problems can arise, however, when the funding turns out not to have paid for what popular interest expected. The crux of the problem lies in what is meant by "popular."

Those of us who are comfortable with our societies as they are use anniversary celebrations as occasions to reinforce the rationale for the status quo, as instruments of social reproduction through the celebration and portrayal of the past not "as it happened" but as it ought to have happened if it is to justify conditions of the present day. Anniversaries thus become institutionalized as opportunities to assert specific values, and those who control the common wealth set money aside to spend on doing so; this kind of institutionalization usually reveals itself by being termed a "celebration" of the given event, and the money that is spent goes to projects that reinforce accepted views of it. The Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission, for example, was created in 1985 by a politically conservative Congress to celebrate the establishment of European cultural hegemony in the "New World," and it carried out its task chiefly by endorsing commemorative products like T-shirts and medals. It also had a part in arranging international commemorative events, like the sailing of replica ships to the East Coast and the Caribbean.

In a society that views itself under a progressive model, as do Western liberal democracies, the centennial urge may also be articulated in institutionalized programs of self-examination and reevaluation designed to demon

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